Beijing is not usually backward in coming forward about its military prowess.
It bombastically boasts about how it can respond to all threats “at any moment”; it builds artificial islands in the middle of the South China Sea and flies sorties of jets into Taiwan’s airspace while constantly threatening to invade the island.
But an announcement in late January, about a reorganisation of its military in the west of the vast nation, was notably more bureaucratic and drier in nature.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, as the name suggests the mouthpiece of the military, reported on the ramping up of operations in the Western Theatre Command (WTC), headquartered in the central city of Chengdu.
Army and air force defence systems in the WTC were to be integrated into a US-style joint operation in a move that would “complement each other’s capabilities and better secure China’s air security in joint operations in the region”.
A report in the state-owned Global Times said weaponry and equipment from the army and air forces would now be an “integrated cross service” in the western command.
“Integrating the two will more efficiently cover all types of targets, and the more installations there are in the joint system, the stronger and resilient the system will be,” Chinese military aviation expert Fu Qianshao told the paper.
The dullness of the words, however, may mask a striking admission of one of China’s military weak spots.
The WTC is one of five military regions that cover China. Within its realm are the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Crucially, it also manages China’s complex and very disputed border with nuclear armed neighbour India.
Despite China’s – on paper at least – superiority over India, that dispute has not been going all Beijing’s way.
In India, some China watchers have said the move is recognition that the PLA’s performance on the frontier has been “below par” and that the troops stationed there are a “not a professional force”.
In the last year, clashes have been frequent between troops belonging to the two nations, with fighting focused on the Galwan Valley in Ladakh to the west and Sikkim in the east.
In 2020, 20 Indian troops perished when they met their Chinese counterparts in the Galwan Valley on the ill-defined high altitude frontier in the Himalayas.
Some Indian soldiers were reportedly clubbed to death with crude nail studded weapons and fell into icy ravines.
China has never admitted how many of its troops died, but New Delhi insists there were casualties, possibly as many as 40.
Troops came to face-to-face again last month in Sikkim. It has been reported that a Chinese patrol tried to enter territory claimed by India but was forced back following a “brawl”. Indian media said Beijing had received a “thrashing”.
This is not the kind of commentary Beijing likes to hear.
CHINA ‘BELOW PAR’
In India, the bolstering of China’s western defences is being seen as a tacit acknowledgment that Beijing’s attempts to extend its frontier in the mountainous region are not going as well as expected.
Writing in major newspaper The Hindu former ambassador Yogesh Gupat said the WTC was one of China’ many military “infirmities”.
“The performance of China’s WTC in Ladakh last year was below par,” he wrote in a piece late last month.
“It suffered a high number of casualties in the Galwan valley clash. The Indian Army also captured the strategic mountainous heights at Rezang La and other passes.”
Chinese troops were not acclimatised to the tough mountainous conditions and many had to be moved to lower altitudes, he said. The defence units in the region were also disorganised.
Of course, it is India’s interests to downplay the effectiveness of China given the two nations many disputes.
Nevertheless, despite China’s military being larger than India’s overall, New Delhi is thought to have the upper hand in the Himalayas with more jets based closer to the border than China.
Indian troops also have an advantage China lacks – actual combat experience due to its long running feud with neighbouring Pakistan.
Mr Gupat also said India’s forces were more up to the job of defending the border than China’s.
“China’s is political and not a professional force, and the personnel are mostly conscripts with low levels of education and low motivation.
“They lack a tough mindset and battlefield experience, and face a serious problem of ‘brain drain’”.
India media has noted the appointment of General Zhao Zongqi as the new commander of the WTC.
Previous commanders were thought to be distant from Chinese President Xi Jinping and ultimately fell out of favour.
Mr Zhao, however, is close to the Communist leader and has experience in sensitive border regions, previously commanding forces that patrolled the Russian and North Korean frontiers.
“The significance of the promotion could be gauged from the fact that Jinping himself attended the event.”
The skirmishes between India and China are partly due to the difficulty in actually working out where one country ends and the other begins.
BORDER SQUABBLES CENTURIES OLD
Much of the border runs through some of the most inhospitable regions on Earth. Using rivers as natural borders has caused issues due the many watercourses and the habit of some to shift position entirely.
When Britain attempted to demarcate the frontier, back in the 19th century, it was so difficult that it was content to leave the line undefined in some areas due to their sheer remoteness.
But Beijing and New Delhi are not happy about having multiple no-man’s lands existing, particularly if one or the other starts to build roads or position troops on them.
“China and India’s antagonism along the Himalayas is a centuries-old story,” wrote academics Bérénice Guyot-Réchard and Kyle Gardener in journal The Diplomat.
“Both countries want a fixed boundary line in the Himalayas; yet the physical geography, cultural landscape, and political history of the world’s greatest mountain range has made any straightforward demarcation impossible.”
This complexity means both Beijing and New Delhi have claimed land the other insists is its own.
China’s latest effort to beef-up its western military command may be a subtle acknowledgment it has failed in the past. But it’s also a sign it doesn’t intend that to be the case in the future.
Beijing will be hoping that beefier weapons, more professional soldiers and co-ordination between its forces may give its military the upper hand on the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. With India not willing to give an inch, more bloodshed is almost the only outcome that is certain.